OLDSSLED – Jeff Hess’ 1956 Oldsmobile
“I’ve been a car guy since I was 14,” says Jeff Hess, the owner of “OLDSSLED,” the ’56 Oldsmobile that captured the title of Goodguys 2020 Street Rod Headquarters Custom of the Year. “I drove illegally as a kid on Long Island.”
Those illicit underage drives eventually led to Jeff acquiring his first car, a ’56 Oldsmobile Super 88 convertible. Inspired by his favorite magazines, Jeff, nicknamed “Biggie” by his granddaughters, turned the Olds into a sleek custom with frenched headlights, a tastefully scooped hood, and a Continental kit out back. It was a pretty cool ride for a young guy on Long Island – cool enough to earn a small photo in the pages of the March 1958 issue of Rod & Custom magazine.
Like many car guys, Jeff never quite got over his first car. The Lake Success, New York, native made his way to the West Coast, had a successful career, raised a family, and got back into the old car hobby a little later in life with a modified ’66 Corvette followed by a slick ’55 Chevy and full custom ’65 Impala. He never forgot that Olds, though.
“About 8 or 9 years ago, Mike and I decided we wanted to do another car,” Jeff says. He’s referring to Mike Filion, owner of Pro Design in Santa Ana, California, the shop that had built Jeff’s ’65 Impala. The two men have become extended family and a very successful duo. As it turns out, Mike had been wanting to tackle a ’50s-era build, which fit perfectly with Jeff’s desire to own another ’56 Olds.
The pair found a suitable ’56 Olds 98 two-door hardtop in Bakersfield, California in April of 2012. The “big brother” to Jeff’s first Olds, the 98 model was both more upscale and longer – the perfect candidate for a low-down custom creation.
And we do mean custom, since nearly every inch of this Olds has been shaved, smoothed, stretched, cut, or altered to achieve the design goals from Jeff’s concept sketches, which were refined with digital renderings by Jonathan Peace of Sparc Industries. The changes start at the top, which was removed in favor of a custom-built, removable Carson-style padded top that flows back from the windshield, which is chopped 2¼-inches. The one-piece front clip is refined with frenched headlights (wearing 3D-printed lenses), a pancaked hood, filled cowl, a recessed custom-machined emblem, functional hood scoop, and a tucked front bumper with a modified Corvette-style grille.
Moving rearward, the quarter panels are extended with integral skirts and scoops, along with recessed lakes pipes tucked along the rocker panels. The custom taillights mimic popular ’56 Packard pieces, but use handmade bezels and 3D-printed lenses. The shortened trunk lid now incorporates a recessed Continental kit, while the heavily massaged rear bumper is notched to accept a one-off center-mounted dual exhaust tip assembly.
Jeff estimates there are more than 50 custom-machined trim pieces throughout the car, each sharing ribbed details to maintain a continuity of design. These jewel-like pieces accent the custom-mixed House of Kolor paint – a hue dubbed “Way Past Midnight Blue” – which was expertly applied by Doug Starbuck of Star Side Designs. The finish even incorporates subtle scallops on the hood, fender tops, trunk, and Continental kit, which you can see when the light is just right.
Things are just as clean underneath, where the original frame is smoothed, painted, detailed, and fitted with custom rear tailing arms and an air suspension system. It’s all concealed behind a series of custom aluminum belly pans. The custom-machined 18×8-inch wheels mimic ’56 Olds hubcaps and are wrapped in smoothed, gold-line Diamondback tires.
Customs often downplay the drivetrain, but not OLDSSLED. Jeff bucked convention and had a vintage 354c.i. Chrysler Hemi built to give this low-down cruiser more than ample power. It’s fed by a custom Autotrend EFI system built on a vintage six-carb log manifold and topped with one-off billet air cleaners. Like the rest of the car, the engine is obsessively smoothed and detailed and wears countless one-off components, including many custom-machined parts by Sparc Industries. It breathes through a custom exhaust system with Magnaflow mufflers and Cerakote coating.
Like the rest of OLDSSLED, the interior design began with Jonathan Peace’s concept rendering. Leading the way is a fabricated dash incorporating a custom center-mounted gauge cluster built by Classic Instruments and housed inside a one-off machined bezel that features the same design details found throughout the car. A floating custom console holds a one-off shifter with matching machined trim. Even the painted steering wheel was custom designed and machined from scratch.
Custom bucket seats and a T-bird-style wrap-around rear seat are covered in beige leather stitched by Bill’s Auto Upholstery in Brea, California. One-off door and side panels were built to match, and you’ll notice details like the custom-machined armrests, door handles, signal levers, pedals, and trim pieces that all carry the continuity of design through the cabin. Darker leather upholstery with carpet inserts covers the floor.
After eight years of planning and building, OLDSSLED was finally unveiled under the Cobo Hall lights at the 2020 Detroit Autorama. It earned an elite spot as one of the Great 8 contenders for the Ridler Award and followed that up with a Select Six finish at the Chicago World of Wheels. It ultimately earned seven awards at its first two shows – including “The Car the Judges Would Most Like to Drive Home!” – before the 2020 indoor event season was cut short.
Jeff and the Pro Design team made up for lost time this past autumn when they entered the Goodguys Street Rod Headquarters Custom of the Year competition where OLDSSLED emerged victorious. The award is a fitting and well-deserved achievement for an incredible custom car that Jeff says was the “build of a lifetime.” And it’s a good reminder of how rewarding it can be to return to your roots.
“We give a most-sincere thanks to the awesome members of our team, our families, and all those who have given this build such a warm acceptance,” Jeff says. “Without them, I would just be an 80-year-old hot rodder with a drivable ’56 Olds!”
Photos by John Jackson and Damon Lee